Happiness or Justice? Ethics and the Politics of Friendship

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Aristotle / difference / ethics / ethnology / friendship / happiness / humanity / justice / light / Plato / Politics / science / society / spiritual evolution

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.


In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. The young they keep out of mischief; to the old they are a comfort and aid in their weakness, and those in the prime of life they incite to noble deeds.

A true friend is one soul in two bodies…


There is an important sense in which Aristotle’s political and ethical project is well-studied in the Platonic method of questioning and re-evaluating conventional priorities and relationships between spiritual elements. Both projects re-discover in traditional virtues a philosophical power which they express in dialogues, encapsulating critical or diagnostic re-evaluations of specific mental and social priorities. The unspoken consonance (implication) here is interesting, and merits reflection: that the old social values and relations are themselves capable of producing new procedures, contain within themselves the power or potential to radically reformulate the ‘axiomatic’ rules and relations between material and psychic agencies.

Now, Aristotle can be seen as drawing a utilitarian or conservative ethics of happiness out of this non-identity of the form of the Good-in-itself (i.e., we need to find the optimal balance between the various aspects or agencies,) but there is another sense in which he can be seen as producing a radical empirical science of the ethical which seeks to expose within real human relations an already-potentially-existing optimal arrangement which, although it can be achieved by reconfiguring elements of the existing system, has the consequence of producing real, qualitative and revolutionary changes in terms of the particular embedded relations as well as the entire assemblage of social relationships.

Hence the science of ethics already is at the same time as it produces a procedural mechanics of happiness, a harmonics or dynamics of the social relation itself in actio — an unfolding partnership between friendship and justice which can and ought to be actively sought empirically, as well as (re)produced within the text itself, another kind of partnership. A double-unfolding of the movement of the ethical: while already divine love, the movement of interbeing itself, it is also a human partnership, solidarity and alliance, as well as an exclusive relation of responsibility which individuates us as interdependent ethical agents. Each aspect of the triple individuation of the ethical (friendship, justice, happiness) relates inextricably to the indeterminacy of the ethical. That is, for Aristotle, no action in isolation can be judged (that is, we can only judge assemblages, interdependent networks of forces, social machines.) This ‘quantum’ indeterminacy of the ethical speaks to the molecularity of human social relations, again underscoring the need for empirical study of the actual patterns of human relationships as they are lived and produced in a wide variety of social fields and under a diverse selection of structures.

This field work cannot be purely abstract or dialectical, nor can it remain purely substantive: it must be procedural, it must expose the movement from the actual — pure events, unspecified substances, chance encounters, fragmentary series — to the “full” virtual field of social relationships. Thus a given ethical logic founds the generic gestures of politics, the ‘prototypical’ science itself, the primary relation to that which prioritizes the social relation above “material” relations (justice.) An idea of ethics lays the first tentative steps towards a full science of the political, a real sensory anthropology of power and conscience (external/internal agency comparing and aligning function to behavior.) The experience of the ethical is an ungrounding, an un-”world”-ing, a depersonalization which places us beyond sovereignty, a descent into the noise beyond the law (which founds the law.)

Paradoxically, while the ethical is exceptional, learned, distilled, and must be actively “cultivated,” it also has an innate and universal aspect which reveals itself instantaneously and sublimely on an individual basis — and thus really only operates in terrifying moments of absolute despair. The self-different experience of the ethical — for example, in the simultaneous reality and impossibility of murder — discloses a horrifyingly personal kind of infinite or ultimate responsibility, revealed in the social relation (justice) itself. In other words, in society, there is always already an alliance with the other preceding violence. Ethics is two-fold: both the social relation itself as prototype (the Other, society, history, “God”) and an empirical study of social micro-politics (critique, “revolution.”)

At the heart of ethics there is a difference, a mark or brilliant trace of light, which is capable of untying the tightest bonds, but which is also already an absolute descent in pure horror, into the chaotic nothingness of impersonal being. This dark night of radical separation is in turn the impossible site of the dawn of humanity as society, the prioritization of the others and the social relation above and beyond the abysses of civic savagery…

Ethics is a cautious science of intermediation, always attempting to perform the impossible — an eth(n)ology of and within the text itself. Ethics in its full sense always produces an empirical science investigating wide varieties of functions and practices, a kind of non-ontological dialectical materialism, which knows well the price of dispensing with empirical investigations. Ethics is conscientious empiricism, a virtuous friendship between justice and happiness. The structure of ethics is recursive, but this is unavoidable — the writing of ethics always already produces an ethics of ethics. The non-linearity, alterity or divergence within ethics itself is a radical break with tradition on the basis of tradition. It is in this sense that ethics is the friendship (partnership) between the various ethical virtues or agencies themselves.

How do we recognize when a partnership is functioning well? If it is functioning well, how do we know if it is a better or worse kind of relationship? Can friendship be meaningfully analyzed in these terms? Perhaps a first clue in this direction is the partnership between the ethical life and friendship. The sense of ethical friendship is embodied in the concept philia, a wider idea than the English word “friend,” indicating the full transformation of heart through which a mutual attraction between two human beings is produced. For Aristotle, there are three kinds of partnerships:

(1) Partnerships between good people
(2) Partnerships based on utility
(3) Partnerships based on pleasure

Aristotle suggests that only in friendships based on character are we going to find a desire to benefit the other person (“simply”) for the sake of the other. It’s not really friendship, in an important sense, if there is an inequality of moral investment — if one party is engaged only because of an advantage to him or herself — or if there is an inequality of moral development. We find in friendship the same recursive paradox we did with ethics itself. Friendship is an immanent exposure of a hidden symmetrical fold or break in Being itself, encoded within the very relationships between human beings. Thus there are two potential routes for the diagnosis and restoration of true friendship.

In the first, we critique social relations based primarily on utility. In the second, we critique social relations based on pleasure. Both of these are ethical-critical procedures — which we recognize as an expression of the constitutive duality or recursivity within ethics, corresponding roughly to the methodology and structure of the ethical (i.e.: on the one hand, ethics as analysis of the good, and on the other, ethics as the general theory of virtue.)

But the method employed in an analysis of the ethics of friendship is itself an empirical study into the various species of friendships, as well as a general investigation into the proper essence of friendship. Only by putting into play both ethical moments — by uniting both virtue and the good into an equitable and just partnership — is the thought of ethics complete as a theory of right social action.

The ethical life is co-extensive with a proper mode of interdependence, of alliance with the other, which is justice; but pure friendships are always subject to degradation, owing to the twin temptations of utility and pleasure. Justice must be chosen for its own sake, not for its use or its pleasure (i.e., a law which we enjoy following would seem to be unnecessary.)

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. Just a few comments. Why stress empiricism, or ethics as an empiricism, again and again in your work? I find this very hard to believe, at least in terms of Aristotle’s work. Now, if you’re trying to ‘use’ Aristotle in this direction, I still don’t see exactly what you mean by empiricism–especially considering Aristotle always refers to ideal types and never to particulars. In fact, even if he had stressed his ethics based on particularity (Aristotle does do this occasionally), it still would not be empirical because his analyses are meant to accord with common sense and support the status quo: how can this be “revolutionary” as you say?

    Also, I don’t see Aristotle here: maybe in the general content, but the philosophical moves you make are Deleuzian and Levinasian. Isn’t there a strange, maybe uncanny, violence in your text? And you claim to want an eth(n)ology and a dynamic critique of social assemblages: why Aristotle? You’re talking about sociology man, pure and simple. If Aristotle has a project that is “political and ethical,” it is to show that the current politics have an ethical code, which, if one submits oneself to it, one can be ‘happy’ and ‘attain the good,’ all that jazz. Again, where is the empiricism? There is none, not in Aristotle. That’s why I think you should stress that this is, above all, your project–maybe you should talk about a ‘transcendental empiricism of the ethical–‘ then you could talk about the conditions of possibility for happiness, goodness, justice, etc. and their ‘triple individuation.’

    You’re trying to bugger Aristotle in the wrong holes with the wrong people. Your bastard child will be monstrous–and if it is born, it will be interesting to see.

  2. I really think I am not too far from the text throughout most of this. But your point is well-taken — it’s an idiosyncratic reading, perhaps. But Aristotle is definitely about empirical science — and by that I only mean actually going out into the world and observing how different species of things are related — consider the methodology of the Politics, for instance… I think this methodology is in some measure present in the Ethics. But we’ll get to talk about all this today, anyway 🙂

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